What Makes Good Video Game Lore?

Lore. Love it or hate it, but at this point an entire library's worth of text and background information is pretty much a prerequisite for any ambitious RPG. And if you're going to do it anyway, might as well do it right. So, in order to figure out how to create satisfying and engaging video game lore, the folks over at USgamer had a chat with Larian Studios' writing director Jan Van Dosselaer, Michael Kirkbride who came up with a lot of The Elder Scrolls lore, and the one and only Chris Avellone.

Here are a few sample paragraphs:

"Eventually, we just put a big message on the whiteboard that said, 'lore is boring,'" says Van Dosselaer. "It was right there, in the room where we do a lot of the writing. That's not to say that traditional lore is bad, of course, but it does mean that you can often tell it in a more interesting way than just some guy yelling it at the player."

"Lore doesn't have to be delivered by the proponent of the lore or a historian in the game," concurs Avellone. "It's often fun to present lore by someone who is at odds with it, who seeks to rewrite it, or who has a perspective on it that makes the player weigh the agenda of the person they're speaking to versus simply accepting the lore being given as a blind adherence to what's being spoken. Hearing a rival nation's interpretation of another nation's lore is a fun interaction opportunity for both the writer and the player."

For Kirkbride, the path from the designer's brain to the player's eyes or ears might have grown more functional over the years, but he still feels that more game-writers should focus on two core maxims that served him well in his former role at Bethesda. For one thing, he and his fellow scribes decided very early on that each text the player would encounter in Tamriel would have a distinct author and point-of-view, rather than the "Word of God" soapboxing that tended to mar early CRPGs. Rather than simply taking a speaker or text at their word, this meant that players were encouraged to consider the point-of-view of the author, just like in real historiography.

For another, he says that most rookie designers-perhaps inspired by the Elder Scrolls pantheon of gods, one of his more celebrated contributions-are too concerned with the affairs of heaven and not enough with those of the everyday person. "We would call it the god story and the dog story," he says, laughing."To me, the dog story is like this: what's it like for the peasant? How does magic seep down into the lives of everyday people? War, famine, things like that. To me, that's equally interesting to warfare between the gods, sometimes even moreso. If you don't know how everyday people are living in your setting, then you don't know your setting... I think that's why people have a tendency to connect with the guild quests in the Elder Scrolls games, because they deal with more mundane matters."